Judged

Matthew 25:31-46
Christ the King Sunday
Elizabeth M. Deibert

May the word you speak to us today, Lord, take root in our lives and bear fruit that is pleasing to you.

This is a difficult passage. In 21 years of ordained ministry, I have avoided preaching it. I prefer to talk about God’s mercy than God’s judgment. This passage makes me uncomfortable because I know I don’t have enough money or time to help everyone who needs help. But this year, I decided it was time to face my fears and deal with this text. In one week’s time here at our ministry center, I have had two encounters with people in need, one of them quite startling. I was here Thursday night in the dark, and had not locked the door. A man needing help walked in. It took every ounce of faith I could muster to look him in the eye and treat him like he was Jesus, because he startled me badly, and I found myself frantically reaching for my cell phone. We did not stay in the building. When I learned he needed gas, we exited quickly to drive in separate cars to the gas station, where I could more safely be compassionate.

Jesus uses sheep and goats to describe the difference between those who were faithfully compassionate and able to enter into his kingdom and those who were not. Now before we read the text, let’s get on board with the differences between sheep and goats. In Jesus’ time this would be understood.

Goats are rough and tough. They can run and jump and climb much better than sheep. They can fend for themselves. Many goats have horns, which they are inclined to use. Goats are rowdy and self-reliant. They are selfish. They are bullies. They are too smart for their own good. They never stay where you put them. They can jump over or shimmy under pretty much any fence. They refuse to conform. They like to break things…and eat things…and get into things.

Sheep are friendly, gentle, trusting, even naïve and innocent. They stay together in herds and follow each other around. They might get lost, but they are not mean or mischievous. I read online about modern-day farmers, who said, “We were never able to keep sheep and goats together in a harmonious group. The feisty goats kept picking on the more docile sheep.”

The goats would bully the sheep away from the good grass and the water. Separation of sheep and goats is often necessary for the survival of the sheep. So Jesus uses the imagery of the sheep and the goats to help his disciples understand God’s intention to protect the weaker ones. Then he makes the connection between the animals and the peoples, as if dividing those who would bully from those who would be gentler and kinder. He makes reference to caring for the needy – the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the one in need of clothing, the sick and the one in prison. It seems that neither the sheep nor the goats were aware of their own compassion or lack of it. Jesus takes that opportunity to identify himself with those who are poor and needy.

Matthew 25:31-46

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'

37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (NRSV)

Christ morphs from shepherd to king in the passage. There are only two references in the New Testament to eternal punishment and this is one of them. There are many references to eternal life, and to God’s grace superseding our sinfulness. I find lots of help in interpreting this passage by reading this portion of A Declaration of Faith: We are warned that rejecting God’s love and not caring for others whom God loves results in eternal separation from him and them. Yet we also told that God loves the whole world and wills the salvation of all humankind in Christ. We live in tension between God’s warnings and promises. Knowing the righteous judgment of God in Christ, we urge all people to be reconciled to God, not exempting ourselves from the warnings. Constrained by God’s love in Christ, we have good hope for all people, not exempting the most unlikely from the promises. Judgment belongs to God, not to us. We are sure that God’s future for every person will be both merciful and just.

Some think Jesus was reassuring his disciples who were the weaker “sheep” of society that the bullies around them would get their just reward for persecuting his followers. But for our day, I think perhaps it helps to remember all the places where Jesus reverses things, or reminds those who think they are first, that they might just be surprised to find themselves last.

Instead of trying to sort out who we are, I am inclined to think of us all as chimeras, a crossbreed of sheep and goat. I see this warning of the separation as a reminder to all of us living in unhealthy, selfish ways. It is not that we can measure ourselves up to figure out whether we are sheep or goat. No, notice in the story that each is totally surprised. “When was it that we saw you in need and helped you?” Jesus, the one who came to serve, makes it clear that service is key for those who want to live in his kingdom.

“God wants to save our souls and redeem us and give us the gift of life—true, deep, authentic human life. God wants to save us by touching our hearts with love. God wants to save us by persuading us to care and see other human beings who need us. God wants to save us from obsessing about ourselves, our own needs, by persuading us to forget about ourselves and worry about others.” “The story of the sheep and goats is a diagnostic tool designed to inspire faithfulness, root out self-centered living, and help each of us measure who and where we are as we grow in the likeness of Christ.” “There is not a word in this passage about having correct theology. There is only one criterion here, and that it is whether or not you saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in his name.” “Jesus teaches that God’s reign—the full revelation of which we await—is characterized in the present, not by powerful works and miracles, but by deeds of love, mercy, and compassion, especially toward those most in need. Jesus’ kingly ministry is to be reflected in his followers’ exercise of shepherding care.” (Feasting on the Word by Armstrong, Stegman, Buchanan, and Douglass)

I’m going to close with a story about a eighty-seven year old man named Carl, WW2 vet and quiet servant of the church, always there, quietly caring for the shrubs and flowers in the church yard. He was watering one day, when three rough and tough teens walked by and insulted the older man. He offered them some water, but they gave him the finger and walked on. A couple of weeks later, it happened again. This time when he offered them water, they turned the hose on him laughing, and stole his wallet and his watch. In the scuffle, Carl got tangled in the hose and fell. Shortly thereafter, the pastor arrived and found Carl pulling himself together.

About a week later, Carl was startled to find one of the boys back again. He quickly said, “I brought you your stuff back. Your money too.” Carl nodded and smiled, and the teen continued. He said, “I felt bad after that day we were so mean to you.” Carl said, “Thanks. What’s your name, kid?” He said, “Joe” And the two talked for a while about Joe’s life and why he had gotten involved with a rough group of teens.

Several months later Carl died, and at his memorial service, the pastor noticed Joe seated at the back of the church. Afterwards, the pastor and Joe talked about Carl and agreed that Joe would take over Carl’s watering job. Eventually, Joe became involved in the church and got baptized. You see, it seems that Carl was a gentle-minded sheep and Joe was a bullying goat, but Carl’s kindness transformed him.

We cannot really separate ourselves into sheep and goats. Only Christ can. We cannot judge ourselves or others. Only Christ the Shepherd King can. We can only live in tension between God’s warning and God’s promises. We can humbly respond with surprise and thanksgiving if we did anything pleasing to God and apologetically, if we failed to see and to care as we should have. “Lord, have mercy on our souls.” When I read this text, I understand what the Old Testament calls the “fear of the Lord” as an awe-inspiring respect and desire to please God. At the very least, this text should keep us from a cheap grace and a lazy faith.

'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'

Let us pray: Lord, inspire us to care for the people who are most needy. To remember as Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other….Let us care for the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work. For we know that intense love does not measure, it just gives… Help us to see you in the poverty of being hungry, poor, foreign, or in prison. Help us also to be compassionate toward those who are unwanted and unloved, starting in our own homes and neighborhoods. Please forgive us for failing to see your face in all the people around us.